Jazz Appreciation Month, the Smithsonian’s annual worldwide celebration, takes many forms large and small throughout April.
On Saturday night at the Baird Auditorium at the Natural History Museum, the program called for a cozy quartet salute to the late guitar legend Wes Montgomery, featuring special guest guitarist Royce Campbell, pianist Tony Nalker, bassist James King and drummer Ken Kimery.
A widely acclaimed recording artist and longtime Montgomery devotee, Campbell proved perfectly suited for the assignment. Using his right thumb to fashion lush arpeggios and propel octave runs and resonating block chords across the fretboard, he conjured Montgomery’s distinctive touch with deceptive ease and crisp articulation.
Particularly enjoyable, and Montgomery-like, were the performances of “Body and Soul” and “Darn That Dream.” Each of these pop standards was warmly enhanced by Campbell’s nimble thumb work. The latter offered a vivid example of how he often contrasts that technique with fluid, flat-picked choruses.
Mostly, though, the Smithsonian Associates concert was devoted to pieces composed by Montgomery. The absence of a Hammond B-3 organ was regrettable, given the prominent role the instrument has played on some of Montgomery’s most memorable recordings. Yet there were many compensations. The rhythm section supporting Campbell, all members of Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, had no problem helping the guitarist carve out small combo grooves on “Full House,” “Road Song” and the Afro-Cuban funk piece “Cariba.”
Pianist Nalker alluded to Montgomery’s blues sensibilities in both subtle and percussive ways, while bassist King was in typically soulful form. Drummer Kimery adroitly used brushes and sticks to complement Campbell’s artistry and, during several swift exchanges, engaged the guitarist in some witty interplay.
For an encore, Campbell chose “Wes,” a self-penned tune that he’s recorded several times. He explained that he wanted to write something that captured Montgomery’s multifaceted sound — “and I did,” he added with a laugh.
Indeed, the ensuing performance couldn’t have been more evocative.